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What happened to Thailand’s Democrat Party?

Updated: Dec 5, 2019

By Petra Desatova

Picture: Two Former Leaders of the Democrat Party, Chuan Leekpai and Abhisit Vejajiva

Source: Thai Government, link


Introduction

Despite the many issues and controversies that continue to surround Thailand’s first post-2014 coup elections, one thing is clear: the electoral performance of Thailand’s oldest political party, the Democrat Party, has been surprisingly poor.


Established in 1946, the Democrat Party used to be a notable force in Thai politics. Although it has not won any elections since 1992, the party had always enjoyed strong support among the more affluent middle-class voters in Bangkok and in the South making it one of the two major parties dominating Thai politics between 2001 and 2014. However, the party’s political fortunes seemed to have turned on March 24, 2019 when Thai people voted for the first time since the country’s military overthrew the democratically elected government of Yingluck Shinawatra on 22 May 2014. If the current unofficial election results stand, the Democrat Party will be the fourth largest party with 3,947,726 votes and 55 seats in total (33 constituency and 22 party list seats).[1]This represents a very modest share of just over 11 per cent of the total popular vote. Compared to the 2011 elections results, when Democrats secured 35 per cent of the popular vote and a total of 159 seats (115 constituency and 44 party list seats),[2]this indicates a significant drop in the party’s popularity.


Democrats lost support across all of Thailand’s four regions including its traditional strongholds. Perhaps one of the biggest surprises was the complete loss of Bangkok. In the 2011 elections, the Democrat Party won 23 out of 33 constituency seats with Pheu Thai securing the remaining 10 seats.[3]In the 2019 elections, the Democrat Party did not win a single constituency seat in Bangkok. Out of the 30 available seats, Pheu Thai won 9 seats – a result comparable to its 2011 election performance. The remaining 21 seats were split between the two new parties: Palang Pracharath (12) and Future Forward (9). These were the Democrats biggest contenders both in Bangkok and across the provinces. Twenty out of the total 30 MP candidates running for the Democrat Party in Bangkok did not even make it to the top three positions within their respective constituencies.[4]Only two Palang Pracharath candidates failed to secure one of the top three positions, while all thirty Future Forward MP candidates came within the top three places.


In the run-up to the 2019 elections, few would have expected that the Democrat Party would lose much of its traditional strongholds. Abhisit Vejjajjiva, the party leader and PM candidate, seemed cautiously optimistic ahead of the poll. Although he conceded that the party would struggle to win as many seats under the new electoral rules as they did in the 2011 general elections, he seemed confident enough to place his party leadership on the line by promising to step down if the Party failed to win a minimum of 100 seats.[5]Abhisit’s confidence was not completely misguided. Most pre-election polls had suggested that the Democrat Party would be the second or the third largest winning party.[6]A seasoned political journalist, whom I talked to less than 24 hours before the poll, also predicted that the Democrat Party would come in the second place winning approximately 100 seats.[7]The 2019 election results thus raise an important question: What went wrong for Thailand’s Democrat Party?


The Rise of New Political Parties

Since 2001, elections in Thailand have been a battle between parties aligned with Thailand’s traditional elites (the monarchy, military and senior bureaucracy) and those aligned with former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, a controversial telecommunications tycoon-turned-politician who challenged the power of traditional elites and polarised the Thai society. The 2019 elections was no exception although it also attained a second dimension: it was a popularity vote on the military government just as much it was on Thaksin.


From 2001 to 2014, the Democrat Party used to be the most notable anti-Thaksin party aligned with Thailand’s traditional elites. This was no longer the case in the run up to the 2019 elections as a number of new political parties emerged within the anti-Thaksin camp essentially giving voters a wider electoral choice and splitting what used to be the Democrat vote. Palang Pracharath Party, a strategic alliance of serving cabinet ministers, conservative politicians and military officers, has proved to be the most serious contender from within the anti-Thaksin camp. Registered with the Election Commission just over a year before the March 2019 elections, the party has been widely seen as a vehicle for continuing Thailand’s military rule. It campaigned on strong anti-Thaksin sentiments, continuation of policies introduced by the military government and supported the prime ministerial bid of General Prayuth Chan-o-cha, the 2014 coup leader and serving prime minister.


Prajak Kongkirati, a respected political scientist at Thammasat University, wrote less than 24 hours before the elections that despite the advantages afforded by the new electoral system, Palang Pracharath could still struggle to overtake the established political juggernauts, namely the Democrat and Pheu Thai parties.[8]However, Palang Pracharath emerged out of the 2019 elections as the second biggest party with 118 seats (97 constituency and 21 party list seats) and the largest share of the total popular vote at 23.7 per cent (8,433,137 votes).[9]Although Palang Pracharath has been accused of dirty electioneering practices including vote buying,[10]it is unlikely that these practices would have been responsible for all of its 8.4 million votes. A number of informants across the Thai political spectrum whom I talked to before the elections confirmed that many Thais were simply tired of the politically turbulent 2000s and 2010s.[11]Half of these informants also knew or heard of people who were going to vote for Palang Pracharath because they enjoyed the superficial notions of peace and order installed by General Prayuth and his military government following the 2014 coup. For these voters, the Democrat Party symbolised the return to the ‘old’ politics of parliamentary bickering, public discontent and street protests. However, not all Thais who were tired of the old politics chose to vote for Palang Pracharath. Another electoral surprise was the strong showing of the Future Forward Party, a progressive political neophyte that had been in existence for just over a year when it contested in the March 2019 elections. Coming in third, the Future Forward Party won 6,265,950 votes and 87 seats (30 constituency seats and 57 party list seats) – so far the biggest benefactor of the new and complex mixed-member apportionment system introduced by the 2017 military-drafted constitution.[12]Popular especially with young voters, Future Forward campaigned on a strong anti-military platform and a set of progressive socio-economic policies. It provided another option to all those Thais who were tired of the old politics but did not support the military government.


Palang Pracharath and Future Forward pushed Democrats out of Bangkok, while the pro-military party also took over almost all of the former Democrat constituencies in the lower North and across the Central region. The Democrat Party also lost a number of constituencies in the South, its traditional stronghold, some of which went to Palang Pracharath.[13]


Brand Identity Crisis

Over the past twenty years, the Democrat Party has gone through a series of identity crises. Before the rise of Thaksin Shinawatra and the turbulent 2000s and 2010s, the party used to be known for its commitment to liberal democratic values and the rule of law.[14]However, under the leadership of Abhisit Vejjajjiva (2005-2019), a UK-born Oxford-educated career politician, the party became increasingly conservative, elitists and anti-democratic. The Democrats supported the often-violent anti-Thaksin movements of 2005-2006, 2008 and 2013-2014, boycotted the 2006 and 2014 snap elections called by Thaksin (2006) and Yingluck (2014) Shinawatra, and endorsed the 2006 and 2014 military coups. Despite repeatedly losing elections to Thaksin-aligned parties, Abhisit led a coalition government between 2008 and 2011 made possible by some back-room factional deal-making involving the country’s traditional elites.[15]His role in the 2010 crackdown on Thaksin supporters remains a highly sensitive and divisive issue to date. Driving around Bangkok one day before the elections, my taxi driver who had voted for the Pheu Thai Party in the advance poll pointed his finger at a Democrat Party campaign poster saying: ‘This is a bad party, they kill people.’


Despite this chequered history, Abhist sought to re-brand himself and his Democrat Party in the run up to the 2019 elections as a ‘third’ alternative to the pro-military anti-Thaksin camp and the anti-military pro-Thaksin camp. In the spirit of a new-found commitment to democracy, Abhisit declared that he would not join a coalition government that would support General Prayuth Chan-o-cha to continue as non-elected prime minister, but he stopped short of ruling out the possibility of joining hands with the pro-military Palang Pracharath.[16]He also indicated that he would be willing to join hands with Pheu Thai if it became free from Thaksin’s influence.[17]Abhisit seemed to have been keeping his options open in case the Democrat Party won enough seats to form a coalition government. He could have then joined hands with either Palang Pracharath or Pheu Thai providing they had agreed to support him as the next prime minister. If this was meant to be the Democrat Party’s third alternative, it satisfied virtually nobody.


By refusing to support General Prayuth, Abhisit seemed to have rolled back on his traditionally strong pro-establishment anti-Thaksin position. This had no doubt alienated some of the more conservative Democrat voters, who tend to view Prayuth as the key figure in the fight against Thaksin.[18]What was worse, Abhisit had also alienated some of his own party members. Just two days before the elections, he faced an open rebellion from one of his MP candidates and had to publicly admit that his refusal to support General Prayuth did not emerge out of the party consensus.[19]This indicated that there was a growing split within the Democrat Party. By failing to fully distance himself from the pro-military camp, Abhisit also seemed to have alienated some of the more liberal Democrat voters, who do not necessarily support the military and its frequent interventions in Thai politics. As a local community leader in Bangkok explained, she used to vote for the Democrats but grew disillusioned with them because they were no longer democratic.[20]Although still unsure who to vote, she said she was considering the Future Forward Party instead. With a total of seventy-seven parties contesting in the 2019 elections, almost a hundred per cent increase compared to the 2011 poll, there were more than enough alternatives for these disillusioned voters to choose from. By failing to clearly formulate its political position, the Democrat Party seemed to have lost the support of both its highly conservative and more liberal voters. Only the most loyal supporters seemed to have remained. However, there is no guarantee that these supporters will continue to vote for Democrats in the future elections.


Petra Desatova has recently completed her doctoral studies at the School of Politics and International Studies, University of Leeds. Her thesis examines the phenomenon of nation branding on the example of post-coup Thailand (2014-2016).

Notes:

[1]The Election Commission has until May 9, 2019, to formalise these results. For an overview of the full unofficial results, see ‘กกต. แจงผลคะแนน ส.ส.100 % ถูกต้องไม่เปลี่ยนแล้ว ชี้ “บัตรเขย่ง”ทำตัวเลขไม่ตรงกัน[EC clarifies that the 100% House of Representatives count is correct and has not changed pointing out that voters registering but not casting their vote are responsible for the numbers not adding up].’ Workpoint News, March 28, 2019.https://workpointnews.com/2019/03/28/แจงผลคะแนน-ส-ส-100-ถูกต้องไม/.

[2]‘ข้อมูลสถิติการเลือกตั้งสมาชิกสภาผู้แทนราษฎรพ.ศ. 2554 [Statistical information on the 2011 elections for the House of Representatives].’ Bangkok: Election Commission of Thailand, 2012. https://www.ect.go.th/ect_th/ewt_dl_link.php?nid=2236.

[3]‘ย้อนดูผลเลือกตั้ง54ฐานเสียงของแต่ละพรรคอยู่ที่ไหน? [Let’s have a look back at the 2011 election results as to where each party’s voter base is].’ Workpoint News, February 21, 2019. https://workpointnews.com/2019/02/21/ย้อนดูผลเลือกตั้ง-54-ฐานเ/

[4]For a full discussion of Bangkok results, see News Channel 8. ‘ผลคะแนน กรุงเทพฯ พรรคพลังประชารัฐ ชนะเลือกตั้ง[Results from Bangkok. Palang Pracharath Party wins the election].’ YouTube video, March 24, 2019. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W0w5SCMO8hg.

[5]‘Pheu Thai seeks pact with Democrats.’ Bangkok Post, January 1, 2019. https://www.bangkokpost.com/news/politics/1603486/pheu-thai-seeks-pact-with-democrats.

[6]For example, see ‘Pheu Thai No 1 choice, but well short of majority.’ The Nation, March 6, 2019. http://www.nationmultimedia.com/detail/politics/30365258; ‘Bangkok Poll.’ Bangkok University Research Centre, March 9, 2019. http://bangkokpoll.bu.ac.th/poll/result/doc/poll 890.pdf; ‘รังสิตโพล’ ชี้คนเลือก‘พลังประชารัฐ’ มากที่สุด หลังเคยประกาศยุติทำโพลมาแล้ว[Rangsit poll suggest most people will vote for Palang Pracharath after it said it won’t produce any more opinion polls].’ Prachatai, February 17, 2019. https://prachatai.com/journal/2019/02/81079; ‘NIDA Poll.’ National Institute of Development Administration, February 15, 2019. http://nidapoll.nida.ac.th/file_upload/poll/document/20190215083659.pdf.

[7]Interview with a political journalist, March 23, 2019.

[8]Prajak Kongkirati. ‘Palang Pracharat Party: can old tricks win in a new political landscape?’ New Mandala, March 23, 2019. https://www.newmandala.org/palang-pracharat-party-can-old-tricks-win-in-a-new-political-landscape/.

[9]Theses calculations are based on the unofficial full election results. See ‘EC clarifies,’ Workpoint News.

[10]For example, see Masayuki Yuda. ‘Thai junta accused of buying votes from Thaksin supporters.’ Nikkei Asian Review, November 25, 2018. https://asia.nikkei.com/Politics/Thai-junta-accused-of-buying-votes-from-Thaksin-supporters.

[11]Interview with a political journalist, March 21, 2019; Interview with an informant working for a regional IO, March 21, 2019; Interview with a Democrat supporter and his wife, March 23, 2019; Interview with a taxi driver in Bangkok, March 23, 2019.

[12]For a good explanation of this system, see Allen Hicken and Bangkok Pundit. ‘The effects of Thailand’s proposed electoral system.’ Thai Data Points, February 10, 2016. https://www.thaidatapoints.com/post/copy-of-now-you-can-blog-from-everywhere.

[13]For a very good comparison of 2011 and 2019 results, see Joel Selway. ‘Regional Voting: Comparing 2019 to 2011.’ Thai Data Points, March 26, 2019. https://www.thaidatapoints.com/post/regional-voting-comparing-2019-to-2011.

[14]See Joshua Kurlantzik. ‘Demise of the Democrat Party in Thailand.’ Council on Foreign Relations, December 3, 2013. https://www.cfr.org/blog/demise-democrat-party-thailand.

[15]Federico Ferrara. Political Development of Modern Thailand. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015, 246.

[16]Teeranai Charuvastra. ‘Abhisit rules out voting for Prayuth.’ Khaosod English, March 11, 2019. http://www.khaosodenglish.com/politics/2019/03/11/abhisit-rules-out-voting-for-prayuth/.

[17]Pravit Rojaaphruk. ‘Abhisit coalition waffling draws fresh flak.’ Khaosod English, March 12, 2019. http://www.khaosodenglish.com/politics/2019/03/12/abhisit-coalition-waffling-draws-fresh-flak/.

[18]Teeranai. ‘Abhisit rules out voting.’

[19]Teeranai Charuvastra. ‘No Dem agreement to block Prayuth, Abhisit admits.’ Khaosod English, March 21, 2019. http://www.khaosodenglish.com/politics/2019/03/21/no-dem-agreement-to-block-prayuth-abhisit-admits/.

[20]Interview with a local community leader, March 24, 2019.